Friday, November 02, 2007

A divine vocation that brings with it, not enlightenment, but darkness, confusion, oppression

In his infamous lecture, “Why I am Not a Christian” – presented 80 years ago this year – Bertrand Russell remarked that the word Christian “does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant.… Nowadays it is not quite that.” This comment reflects the state of atrophy into which Christianity has descended, the continual process of being alienated from its own essence, of growing ever more vague and indistinct.
And yet it is truly a peculiar aspect of our time that shards of a lost authenticity can be found in the most “anti-Christian” of sources. Indeed, the offensive strangeness historically embodied in the Christian message is frequently more discernible in such sources than in the impotent expressions of official Christianity. As usual, Karl Marx said it best: “Shame on you, Christians, both high and lowly, learned and unlearned, shame on you that an anti-Christian had to show you the essence of Christianity in its true and unveiled form!”
Perhaps one of the paradoxical tasks left to us, then, is to try to make out the truth in the likes of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or buried deep in the pages of Darwin’s scientific notebooks, or even amid the moving images of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ...
But there is a disturbing dimension to Scorsese’s films that is far more profound than just on-screen violence. It is conveyed by the stark inelegance of the cinematography, the absence of warm tones, the chilling sense of an austere world in which kindness, let alone love, is not possible. Scorsese’s is a fallen world. Like Cain, his tortured characters are driven further into the wastelands – whether the desert or the untamed streets of New York – by their acts of almost mythical violence, until any remaining vestige of hope or virtue is finally extinguished.
And it is into this world that Scorsese – like those great Italian auteurs before him, Pasolini and Zeffirelli – conceived his own Christ. Drawing inspiration from Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ presented a radically different version of the Jesus story than other, more sanitized depictions. Scorsese’s Jesus, like all of his protagonists, is a tortured soul, haunted by a divine vocation that brings with it, not enlightenment, but darkness, confusion, oppression.
Jesus’ experience of God is of an expansive, entirely free presence that can no more be apprehended by the young Galilean’s marginalized psyche than it can by the temple in Jerusalem. The psycho-spiritual journey of the film, then, is not toward some deep sense of Jesus’ “secret identity,” a clearer realization of who he is and what he must do, but rather away from any such security. He is plunged into the divine void, and need only be willing to resign himself to it to find salvation, and sanity.
This is where the film’s near fatal weakness lies: it reduces Jesus’ message to an antiestablishment spiritualism, or even vulgar pantheism over against the rigid formality of Jewish ritual. (As Jesus puts it at one point in the film, “God is an immortal spirit who belongs to everybody, to the whole world!”) By casting God as an all-embracing life spirit, rather than some tribal deity, the film locates the critical opposition as one between Jesus’ free spirituality and Judaism’s stale religion.

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